K. J. Parker’s Savages is, as it eventually becomes clear, a fantasy novel that is telling a story about the epic sweep of history—the conflicts between a great empire and its rival to the east; its internal divisions and crises; and its shifting relations to the titular “savages” (a term that the title is using for ironic effect) who comprise much of its armies and sit on its northern borders. It doesn’t take too much knowledge of Roman history to see the parallels here, although Parker isn’t quite doing a 1:1 mapping.
The scope of the book—spanning decades, with a large cast of characters—suggests an epic feel to it, and in broad outline, there is that; you can see the fate of nations and armies play out over the course of the book, and it has that kind of large-scale historical feel to it. But each individual character’s story feels a lot smaller-scale, as they pull off a successful con or bluff their way into a carpentry job or whatever other small-bore thing they’re doing that day. It actually reminded me a lot of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Ethshar series in that respect, because Ethshar has its “grand scope of history” overlaying the whole series, but individual books feel like light fantasy. Here, the larger history is foregrounded more, but it still has a light fantasy feel.
Which makes sense, because it turns out that K. J. Parker is actually Tom Holt, a British writer who’s written a whole bunch of humorous fantasies dating back to the ‘80s. I read a solid handful of his books back in college; this was about the same time I was discovering Terry Pratchett, and probably the most certain thing I remember is that they weren’t nearly as good as Pratchett.
But whatever I thought of Holt as a humorous fantasist, in his guise as Parker, his style works well, keeping a weighty topic breezily readable. Savages wasn’t super-brilliant, and I’m not going to immediately rush out and devour the rest of Parker’s back catalog; but it’s a sure bet that next time I’m flying somewhere or otherwise going on vacation, I’ll load up the phone with some of his stuff. Lightly recommended.